Gatorland: In the Realm of Birds and Crocodilians

After a couple of days in Orlando, we wanted to take a break from amusement park lines and steep entrance fees. Gatorland (Alligator Capital of the World) did not sound entirely like our cup of tea, but, at $26.99 for adults/$18.99 for kids 3-12 (and a $2.50 discount available online), it seemed at least try-worthy. To my complete amazement, this was a resounding success–especially where stunning, startlingly relaxed wading birds were concerned. And BIRDS were everywhere.

Egret at Gatorland

Alligator smiles at Gatorland in Orlando, FLIn cool Florida January, alligators and crocodiles were torpid, which made the birds even bolder: egrets, ibises, cormorants, herons showed up in droves. It began at the entrance, by the alligator nursery, rough wet alligator backs glistening in the mid-morning light.

By the entrance - kindergarten and first birds, Gatorland

In the kindergarten

The same picture greeted us everywhere: Birds perched by, on, and among the alligators, who barely moved under lazy winter rays.

Birds and alligators at Gatorland, Orlando

The feeding area. None of these alligators actually moved (January is their nap month)

Bird and alligator naps at Gatorland, FL

Bird and alligator, Gatorland

I have never seen so many large shore birds up close, entirely unbothered by my presence. The variety on our birdwatching menu was superb.

Great blue heron at Gatorland, FL

Great blue heron

Black-hooded night heron in Gatorland, FL

Black-hooded night heron

Egrets at Gatorland, FL

Egrets

Bird feet, Gatorland

White ibises in Gatorland, Florida

White ibises–exactly THAT close

Egret, Gatorland

The most memorable of all: a wood stork, very large but gentle, was surprisingly unnerving at an arms-length.

Wood stork, Gatorland, Orlando

Wood stork, a gentle creature

I felt like I was being sized up by a pensive pterodactyl.

Florida stork, looking prehistoric, Gatorland, FL

Florida wood stork, looking prehistoric

Gatorland Breeding Marsh and Rookery - Observation deckThe centerpiece of all this activity is the Breeding Marsh and Rookery, where 130 alligators procreate in a natural environment. A three-story observation deck and wooden walkways provide great views of the water and all who live in it–the marsh is also a popular nesting and roosting site for all manner of shorebirds (with alligators below,

Wandering the plank, Gatorland, Florida

Wandering the plank

nests are protected from raccoons, snakes, and other non-crocodilian predators). Elaborate courting displays and nesting behaviors can be observed from late winter well into summer. February to June, photo passes ($30, or $10 on top of your regular ticket) are available to enter the park at 7:30 am (two and a half hours before the park usually opens) to capture nesting couples at their morning chores. I will definitely try this next time we come here. In early January, it was too early for bird romance.

Gatorland rookery

Another surprising Gatorland highlight: a stroll through the cypress swamp at the park’s southern reaches, a 15-minute glimpse into what central Florida looked like before its wetlands were drained for development.

Cypress swamp walk, Gatorland

Looking at central Florida now, it is hard to believe that THIS is what it once was:

Cypress swamp walk, Gatorland: this is what central Florida looked like before its wetlands were drained for development

In January, grey and brown were dominant swamp colors, with vivid patches of emerald ferns, mosses, and young plants poking through the still, black water. It all seemed–enchanted, still, and peaceful.

Cypress swamp, Gatorland The Swamp Walk is mostly unadorned, but some friendly educational signs do pop up here and there. And lucky that they do–I would have missed air plants otherwise. I first saw them at Bok Gardens, another unexpected central Florida gem, but here they were less of a centerpiece–just batches of narrow, long leaves on bark, life clinging to everything, anything in reach.

Air plants, Swamp Walk, Gatorland

Back in gator realm, birds were not the only thing we paid attention to, of course. Through the haze of feathers, alligators and crocodiles from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America lounged and looked menacing despite their stagnant moods.

Snowy egret's feathers, alligators at Gatorland

Alligator smiles, Gatorland, FL

The famous alligator smile

Nile crocodile, Gatorland, FL

A Nile crocodile: nearly 20 feet of cold, uninterested flesh

Crocodile, regulating body temperature, Gatorland

Regulating body temperature

Leucistic alligator, Gatorland, FL

Gatorland’s rare leucistic alligator (not an albino), extremely aggressive and kept behind a thick glass

Crocodile, Gatorland

Awake! (Or sleeping with eyes open?)

Cuban crocodiles, scary at Gatorland, FL

Lily and Ricardo, registering us

The most creepy of all were the two Cuban crocodiles, Lily and Ricardo–the smartest of all Gatorland’s creatures. They seemed to respond to their names and were wide awake and perfectly alert. Their enclosure was free of birds, I noticed.

This picture does not do them justice: It was dusk when we saw them, during the memorable Night Shine tour, an evening walk through the park to the Breeding Marsh, absolutely worth the additional $19.99. It was fascinating to watch this place wind down (or awaken) for the night.

Peacocks in the tall tree, Gatorland during the Night Shine tour

Peacocks fly just enough to scale up a tree for safety

Evening at Breeding Marsh, GatorlandAs the sky darkened, we got to appreciate just how many birds Gatorland attracts: ghostly white forms, hundreds and hundreds of them, seemed to cover every branch around the Breeding Marsh, going suddenly quiet after all the commotion–breathtaking to see and hear! Not to mention the myriad of glowing alligator eyes in the water: Did you know that alligator eyes glow in the dark? Here they are, in eerie constellations–a fitting farewell memory for a day full of surprises:

Allegator eyes glowing, Gatorland

Other Posts about Central Florida: 

20 thoughts on “Gatorland: In the Realm of Birds and Crocodilians

  1. Excellent photos and great post. I lived in Florida, and traveled state-wide. And my experience is that any body of water, and I mean ANY body of water, can harbor a gator. In Florida, relaxed birds mean well fed alligators. BTW, if you get a chance, the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine is also very cool.

  2. Those herons clearly know that they are not chickens… (if I’m right in remembering that is what the alligators are fed???)
    Beautiful photographs – I love the close ups of the birds and their wonderful feathers 🙂

    • Thank you! The birds were beautiful–and happy to pose. The alligators are fed chicken carcasses, and visitors could get sausages to throw, but in “cold” Florida January alligators were more torpid than usual, so it is the best time to visit, apparently, if it’s birds you’d like to see.

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